Imagine you’re on the verge of your 80th birthday. Widowed and retired, you plan a trip to Nice, France, where you were born and lived for the first four years of your life. You’re looking forward to exploring the place you’re from. And then, a phone call throws a wrench in your plan.
That’s the beginning of Akin, a new novel by Emma Donoghue.
Noah Selvaggio is a long-time Upper West Sider recently retired from his job as a university professor (he notes that a 70-something professor is impressive, while an 80-something professor has overstayed his welcome). Ahead of his first trip back to his birthplace, he gets a phone call from a social worker. As it happens, he’s the only known relative of Michael, the 11-year-old son of Noah’s deceased nephew. Instead of cancelling his trip, Noah reluctantly decides that Michael will join him.
As in Donoghue’s 2010 best seller, Room, Akin explores the relationship between a younger and older protagonist, though this book is much less upsetting than its predecessor (which, if you’re unfamiliar, is narrated by a 5-year-old boy locked in a backyard shed with his mother, who was abducted two years before his birth).
Noah and Michael are an odd couple, and their differences highlight their age gap. (Noah, for example, is perplexed as to why Michael’s shirt says, “Winter Is Coming,” when winter is very much already here.)
Most of the book’s “action” comes in the form of a plot about a bunch of mysterious photos Noah’s mother took during WWII, when she may or may not have been a Nazi sympathizer. But it’s Donoghue’s treatment of Noah and Michael’s relationship that makes this a must-read. She nails the innocent yet biting voice of a phone-obsessed 11-year-old (“'You talk a lot dude,’ Michael murmured without looking up.”) and captures the essence of any major trip: “They climbed the steps, Noah’s hip speaking to him. Tourism was such an odd mixture of the tiring and the hedonistic.”
Despite its fairly cliché premise (old man and young boy have nothing in common yet form a bond), Akin’s strength lies in Donoghue’s richly drawn characters. Oh, and don’t be surprised if you finish this book and immediately start researching flights to Nice.